WASHINGTON (AP) — California congressmen Mike Honda and Tom McClintock have never apologized for their strong partisan leanings and are not about to start now.
Honda, one of Congress' most liberal lawmakers, and McClintock, one of its most conservative, face challengers from within their own party in Tuesday's midterm elections. They saw a fellow member of California's congressional delegation, former Democratic Rep. Pete Stark, get booted from office in just such a race two years ago and are rallying their base supporters to avoid a similar fate.
Their challengers, meanwhile, are taking the opposite tactic by trying to appeal to a wider range of voters, including independents and those from the opposing party.
The races provide a sort of laboratory for testing one of the ideas behind California's relatively new top-two primary system — that doing away with party primaries will help elect more moderate, pragmatic politicians.
In all, seven of California's 53 congressional races this year are same-party matchups. Washington state has a similar election system in place, and Oregon has an initiative on the ballot that gives voters the option of joining them.
The highest-profile of California's same-party races features Honda and patent lawyer, Ro Khanna, a former Obama administration appointee. Khanna has appealed to Republicans by, among other things, calling for tax cuts for small businesses. A recent Khanna mailer referred to Honda as an "old school liberal," language that was immediately attacked by Honda supporters.
"Real Democrats don't use 'liberal' as an epithet," said Howard Dean, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, in a fundraising pitch for Honda.
A subsequent campaign news release called Khanna a "Democrat in name only."
McClintock's campaign has adopted a similar tact. His campaign describes challenger Art Moore, as a "Democrat in Republican clothing."
In turn, their challengers are tuning in to voters' concerns about gridlock in Washington.
"What kind of coalitions are you building to get results?" Moore asked McClintock during a recent debate. "That's what my candidacy is about."
McClintock countered that he was responsible for one of the 163 bills that passed in the current session and two others that passed the House of Representatives.
Khanna also has emphasized a willingness to work with Republicans. During a recent debate, for example, Honda said he would be hard-pressed to vote for an immigration bill that failed to include a pathway to citizenship. But Khanna said he would work with Republicans on a piecemeal approach.
"I get that's it's important for our competitiveness," Khanna said.
The two challengers competing against Honda and McClintock would not be in this position under California's previous election system. By finishing second overall, they advanced to the general election under the state's relatively new primary system, which sends the top two vote-getters to the general election regardless of their party affiliation.
Khanna's campaign is getting a boost from a Super PAC called Californians for Innovation, which has spent more than $685,000 on the race. Texas billionaires John and Laura Arnold are the group's largest donors, each contributing $125,000.
"Under California's old election rules, Rep. Honda was able to coast to election victories — often by more than 40 points — against token Republican opposition," the Arnolds said in a joint statement to The Associated Press. "... This year, he has a real race on his hands. Both he and Ro Khanna need to appeal not just to the base of one party but to all of the people in California's 17th district. That's a good thing, no matter which candidate you support."
Another down-to-the-wire same-party race is in California's 25th Congressional District, where Republicans Steve Knight and Tony Strickland are attempting to succeed Republican Rep. Buck McKeon. The district, centered in the Lancaster-Palmdale area of Los Angeles County, is almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
In reaching out to Democrats, Knight talks about the federal health care reforms. He opposes the law but says he would not vote to repeal it.
"My job is to make it better for this country," Knight said. "And (Strickland) has said in the primary that his No. 1 goal, No. 1, was to repeal Obamacare. And I just don't think that plays with Democrats. And I don't that plays with a lot of Republicans, either."
During a debate sponsored by a local Democratic club, Strickland said he was proud that his opponent had once called him a dealmaker because it meant he worked with members of both parties while serving in the state Legislature.
"We already have people in Washington who right now are not talking to each other. It's their way or the highway, so they don't come together and get things done. And then what happens, we all lose," Strickland said.